From the TUC

Is everybody happy?

24 Jul 2009, by in Society & Welfare, Working Life

The BBC’s flagship radio news programme Today has had a couple of interesting pieces on happiness in the last couple of days, including a report from Denmark, which regularly tops polls as the happiest place in Europe. They included a clip of David Cameron’s call for more consideration of general well-being than gross domestic product. Much of the modern interest in this flows from Richard Layard’s book Happiness in the UK and the positive psychology movement in the USA  spearheaded by Martin Seligman. Of course happiness has its critics too. Should there be a trade union perspective?

I’ve always been in two minds about making happiness an explicit public policy objective. This may have something to do with being a bit of a melancholic myself, and finding intensely happy people more than a bit irritating. I suspect one of the less appealing aspects of trade unionism is that we all seem to enjoy a good whinge – though it doesn’t seem to make us happy.

But there are more rational arguments too. There is something a bit scary about the state wanting us all to be happier, and as Paul Ormerod and Helen Jones argue asking people if they are happy produces data that bears little relationship to anything else.  Indeed I think snapshots of happiness are a bit suspect. How do people measure their own happiness? Don’t most of us tend towards an even keel over time? I don’t really know whether I’m happier now than I was twenty years ago – come to think of it I’m not sure how I compare with last week, but that may just be me. There is clearly a rise in diagnosed depression, but that I think is rather different than general well-being.

This is not to say that psychological insights can’t help individuals brighten up. Clearly the clinically depressed can be helped, and it follows that the not clinically depressed, but a bit miserable, can also be made more cheerful. But does it make sense to try and assess the collective happiness and then use macro measures to try to improve it? I’m not so sure.

But while measures and happiness targets do not strike me as a recipe for good government, there is still an important issue here. The greatest happiness of the greatest number is still a worthy objective for public policy, individual action and trade union campaigning. We may get hung up on other objectives, but they are mostly a means to an end of making people happy.

It may be that a better way of looking at this is that it is entirely legitimate to look at ways of reducing unhappiness. Being ill, insecure and unemployed are all likely to make people unhappy. That is why it is right for public policy to target these. But can we go further and promote happiness?

One issue that often crops up in the academic debate is whether more equality makes for more happiness. Richard Layard argues this, but Paul Ormerod finds little correlation between measured inequality and happiness, though one explanation for Denmarks’ high happiness quotient is that is a much more equal society with a strong welfare state and a powerful sense of civic solidarity. It certainly shows that paying high levels of tax does not make you unhappy. 

Perhaps the problem is not just that it is hard to measure happiness, but that it is a product of many different factors. Public policy and your external environment can remove many likely causes of unhappiness, and stop some obvious causes of misery, but not actually make you happy. Not being miserable is not quite the same as being happy – a much more intangible emotion that depends as much on whether subjective expectations are being met as objective economic and environmental factors.

So rather than asking whether trade unions can make their members happy, it might be better to think about the causes of unhappiness in the workplace and what can be done to remove them.

Employers are undoubtedly keen on research that shows that higher pay doesn’t necessarily make people happy – at least not for long. Although trade unions are right to be wary of this argument, research does tend to show that it is the perception of unfair pay that makes people unhappy. If other people doing the same job as you are paid more because of their race and gender, you will be unhappy – just as you will if it’s because they work in a different workplace down the road. You will be unhappy if you think the pay structure is unfair.

But if there is a lesson in this debate it is that factors other than pay contribute hugely to well-being. What makes workers really unhappy and stressed are jobs that fail to use their capabilities and over which they have no control or autonomy. It’s the opposite of what psychologists call flow – defined on Wikipedia thus:

Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” 

I’m not sure that striking for more flow is very likely in the near future, but it does suggest that unions are right to give such high priority to skills and training likely to lead to more fulfilling jobs, and to think how best to argue against the command and control management that reduces autonomy (and productivity) that is so common – particularly in non-union workplaces dominated by routine tasks. And in the wider policy sphere it is why we argue for less inequality and more social justice.

It might not make us happy, but at least we will have less to moan about.

3 Responses to Is everybody happy?

  1. Richard Murphy
    Jul 25th 2009, 10:09 am

    Happiness is not a goal. It is an epiphenomenon of a life well lived.

    A life lived in poverty (relative or absolute) cannot be well lived.

    Ergo, we tackle poverty.

    And beware Richard Layard – who prescribes CBT to those depressed. This basically asks them to accept their condition. But if they are in poverty they should not accept their condition – they should be angry about it. Futile anger turns to depression. This is where unions have a role in channelling anger into positive action for change.

    Yes, unions do need a position on this – but not one based on CBT but instead one based on solutions – which is an entirely different approach to the issue.

  2. Peter HJ
    Jul 25th 2009, 11:38 am

    Agreed – this IS an important issue for unions. Last year a survey in the UK found that 81% thought the government’s primary objective should be the creation of happiness, rather than wealth. But do we know how to interpret this? Happiness CAN be usefully measured. In fact there are a number of indexes, and they’re based on very real factors. Check out the Satisfaction With Life Index ( or the Happy Planet Index (, which measures how successfully countries turn resources into long and happy lives for their citizens. There’s also Bhutan’s (IMO rather dodgy) substitute for GDP, a measure of “Gross National Happiness” ( To get a free personal assessment, and help consider how this question might be considered on a class basis, see

  3. Jo Jordan
    Jul 28th 2009, 3:30 pm

    Begging the question of you mathematical model.

    You are conceptualizing happiness as something you can measure on a ruler – draw a straight line and happiness is a point somewhere along the line? Therefore you have more or less and more or less correlates with more or less of something else. Moreover, we are talking about you or me having more or less and fairly dependably having more or less over a long period of time.

    This model immediately has problems if we try to increase happiness – but lets leave that aside.

    Lets jump to a contemporary mathematical model – of a phase state. Now think of a a 3D graph and your happiness as being (x,y,z) which vary minute by minute and as a function of each other. So if x goes up, y goes down and so on. Now these coordinates will loop about in a 3D butterfly. Good generous looping about though glee, sorrow, contemplation, affection, etc is happiness or flourishing.

    A fixed point means you are severely ill. Going round and round in a fairly small circle means you are fairly unwell. The latter two states are called languishing.

    A lot of people languish. It seems we need about 5 positive thoughts to 1 negative thoughts to fully embrace the fullness of life. We go below 3:1 we start to struggle.

    Some of the empirical work for this is limited (Frederickson & Losada 2005 -available Google). What is refreshing is getting the phase state idea.

    Once we have that, much follows. We can make schools and workplaces where people languish. We can have media that encourages languishing. None of this will be the last world on mental health or economic prosperity, but it has opened up a stream of interventions for what seemed intractable problems of poor school performance, plateaued productivity, and low solidarity/trust. It also dovetails with discussions about the new p2p models arising out of the internet – Clay Shirky and co.

    Can governments determined our happiness? Probably not but they sure as hell can make our lives difficult. So much of what we see around us could be removed wth a stroke of a pen to make our lives more enjoyable and not a jot less prosperous.

    Take Royal Mail for example. Bring in positive organizational scholars to do have discussions around appreciative inquiry and we would probably have a turnaround plan that will work in no time at all. And on it goes. The old models are holed beneath the water line as Professor after Professor from leading universities are telling us. Time for us to move on!
    Away from antiquated models based on straight lines to recursive models more in tune with the with complexity of nature and the internet world.